The pure camp of the 1960’s Batman will forever be etched in our cultural memory. Even young adults, born decades afterwards still sigh and reminisce about the fight scene exclamations “EEE-Yow!” and “Urkk!” as if it were yesterday. The Batman franchise in the 1990’s did little to shake itself free from its enduring link to the sixties, releasing a series of sub-par movies culminating in the 1997 abomination Batman and Robin where George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger did their utmost to revive the campy feel. It’s this tired and caricatured franchise that Christopher Nolan took over in 2005 with Batman Begins. To many people’s surprise, he was able to shed the franchise’s cultural baggage, reviving it through an injection of tonal seriousness layered with psychological and philosophical complexity.
Hype leading up to The Dark Knight promised an even greater transformation for the Batman series. Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern called it “suffocating.” Most critics echoed that thought. “Psychotic,” “brilliantly nihilistic,” and “sinister epic” are merely a few of the synonymous phrases used to echo the same sentiment: Batman was once more going through a 360 degree transformation, one which put ticket buyers in a flurry of anticipation.
The Dark Knight does more than merely continue shedding the cartoonish camp. It is the first comic book franchise movie to transcend its genre and become arguably a masterpiece in its own right. Many critics have cited Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, Nolan’s stunning direction, and strikingly original writing as proof of The Dark Knight’s potential Oscar windfall. It accomplishes, however, something rarer than a mere coalescing of top acting, direction, and writing performances. It achieves a thematic coup not easily accomplished in mainstream cinema.
The Dark Knight takes us to the depths of spiritual evil without turning audiences away or trivializing the subject matter. Only a handful of movies can be said to have done this. Schindler’s List, The Passion of the Christ, and The Lives of Others are three in recent history that have taken audiences deeply into the mystery of evil without inducing us to upchuck our last meal or stay away from the theater. It’s much easier to go the route of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, a brutal Romanian movie about a woman who pursues an abortion, which goes beyond reasonable viewer endurance in an attempt to show the depth of evil (Schindler’s List nears that boundary, but without crossing it—the heroism of Oskar Schindler adds enough paradox to get the audience through the brutality).
It’s even easier to trivialize the reality with a superficial caricature. A majority of slasher, horror, and crime dramas give us images of unmitigated evil, but without the underlying spiritual reality. The villains are merely horrifying aberrations, humans with a couple of fuses blown in their minds, but are the stuff of nightmares, not reality. There’s no mystery here—just a matter a few crossed wires in the human mechanism. We needn’t be afraid of that evil: it’s rare, outlandish, and safely removed from our daily lives. Evil, then, is not part of our nature, but the equivalent of a computer crash, avoidable through consistent upkeep and an occasional therapy group. In other dramas, evil is purely exterior. In these movies, human nature isn’t the source of evil—only the objects of desire are. If only we would stop pursuing money or power, then our problems would simply disappear.
The Dark Knight derives its power from eschewing trivialization. The conflict between order and the maniacal nihilism of Ledger’s Joker is the real reason The Dark Knight transcends its genre. Nolan turns the Joker into a realistic, physical manifestation of Satan. He’s seemingly demonic, always ten steps ahead of his short-sighted human victims, wanting nothing but evil for its own sake, drawing human souls into its vacuum of nothingness. The Joker’s efforts are frightening, because he understands and manipulates fallen human nature. The potential for evil and nothingness is not safely removed from our lives but intimately a part of our being. The Joker explains that all we need is a little demonic push and gravity will pull us into chaos. The confrontation of the Joker’s evil catapults The Dark Knight from merely entertaining and well-made to genre transcendence.
While Christopher Nolan hits a chord in creating a truly terrifying manifestation of spiritual evil, he misses the mark in fully understanding how to confront it. Secularism limits his imagination. Courage, a little nifty technology, and refusal to capitulate principles are enough to bring the Joker down. The implication is that we have no use for Divine Providence: if we trust in our own strength and goodness, we can defeat evil. Best Picture Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men similarly shows the limits of secularism when understanding how to confront the horrifying spiritual reality of evil—resignation and passivity is the path presented.
Despite the shortcomings of Nolan’s worldview, he does our culture a great service. Nihilism is a real threat to us, when we tend not to believe it. We’d like to believe that we can form our own cosmopolitan truth without having to risk falling headlong into the void. We’d like to believe that order and truth will always keep us moored despite our infidelity towards it. When our culture considers nihilism, it sees the effeminate, posturing German nihilists of The Big Lebowski hissing hilariously “we believe in nahthing.” We owe Christopher Nolan our gratitude for reminding our culture that evil exists and it’s not trivial.